Day 113: Traditional long boats race Nan River


Each village in the small Thai province arrives with an elegant, slender boat and a team ready to race. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

THE alarm sets the hook and starts to draw me out of sleep. I resist, like a Northern Pike on the line. I hit snooze. I play log. The alarms sounds. I hit snooze again.

This morning is technically why I'm still Nan: long boat racing on the river. However, I've been sleep deprived the last few days, finding myself wandering around the provincial town at all hours of the night. I want this sleep. I need this sleep.

It's already 7:30am, I was told the racing starts at 8am. I don't know how long it lasts, but I do know an early start is necessary.

I go to the Board of the Die. They force me out of bed. It's an unfortunate decision.

Down by the river, vendors are only starting to open the festival stalls. A few athletes, most in bright shirts, are carrying simple wooden paddles and milling about. It's Thailand. Nothing starts on time, and that's assuming 8am was when the race was supposed to start.

I feel like smoking a cigarette. I've never smoked a cigarette, and to be fair I don't really want to smoke a cigarette. But, in my dazed state, I want to slump into a cafe, stare into the blackness of my coffee and crush cigarette butts out in an ashtray. And, of course, the easiest way to get fresh cigarette butts is to smoke cigarettes.

There is a great deal of irony that tobacco is off-limits, as I am headed to Laos to do drugs. Nonetheless, I do need that coffee. Most cafes in Nan are still closed, but with a little persistence, I locate one near a Shell Station,

Staring into the blackness of an excellent Americano, I am disappointed with being awake.

The bull horn sounds and the flags drop, as the rowers dig deep and head down river. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Kara, the short, hobbit-like English teacher I met earlier, drops me a line. She's been a gem with keeping in touch: never inviting me to things, but keeping me posted after I show interest in maybe meeting up with the group. They're headed to some cafe on the far side of the river.

There are two media and judges' stations set up on the bridge crossing the Nan River when I pull up. I park the big bike in a row of scooters on the bridge. It doesn't seem like the best idea, but the vantage point is great for watching the boats below.

Though the racing has yet to start, things are more lively now, with some teams clambering into their vessels.

The long boats, which are traditional to this region and can be found in Laos and Cambodia as well, are slender crafts, at least 10 meters long, but only two-men wide in the middle. The brightly painted boats, most some variation of orange, red or green, are ornately decorated. For the races, a dragon, or Nga, head stem has been attached, jutting out several meters from the prow of the boat. A less lengthy tail piece is attached to the stern.

Each village owns at least one boat and sends it and a crew to compete in the races. This weekend's race is a much smaller version of the chaos that descends on the river in October or November.

The boats are gathering in a cluster not far from the finish line. Wandering down off the bridge, I search for a place to launch the drone.

Through the fair grounds, past a pack of wily pugs that have staked their territory around carnival game where you can win giant Pikachu stuffed animals, I make my way to the enormous concrete steps running along the river, very much like stadium seats.

There is a small crowd taking advantage of the shade of the bridge and more media farther down river. It's not the best scenario for piloting a drone. To make flying more complicated, there are marker lines running perpendicular to the river. If the drone hits one of those, it could easily end up in the river.

Scanning the skies I spot two more drones already in the air.

There is a white guy thigh deep in the muddy water with one of the teams that's coming in to take cover from the brilliance of the sun until their first race. He gives me a friendly wave as I snap a photo.

He wades over for an amiable chat.

The man, whose very Dutch name I couldn't keep in my head for more than a minute, has been living in Nan Province for six or seven years and Thailand for the last 13.

“They are very strict about who races,” he says. “You have to be a resident in the village and show that you own a house there.”

“My village isn't racing this year,” he confesses.

Because Nan Province is a bit of a backwater place in Thailand, many of the youths move to Bangkok or other large cities for school and work. This means that some years there aren't enough hands on deck for one village or another to race. On average, there are about 20 paddlers per boat. Though there is a bit of a logic gap on how Dutchman is able to swing racing for another team, I don't peruse it.

Locals arrived to support their village boat. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The boats themselves are nearly spiritual beings, he explains. They are blessed by monks and have a small cubby in the bow for offerings to be made. Typical items, such as joss sticks, fruits, cakes, flowers and so on, are in a small pile at the front of the boat we are standing next to.

“The boats are women, so they get jealous,” he says, explaining why woman aren't traditionally supposed to be part of the race. However, times are a changing. There are a few mixed-sex crews and even an all women's crew comprising high school students.

“The old guys don't like it,” he says.

The man is providing the kind of context that anchors the event in a culture and history. I mention that I have a blog and that I'd like to interview him later on.

“Everybody has a blog,” he says. “But glad to meet up with you and talk more. Me and a friend, who sailed around the world twice, were in a boating magazine once.”

It's true that everyone has a blog, though I don't understand why people are so keen to spit the phrase at me. I could of course say that I run a multi-media travel website, but that's just silly and overstating the fact. I write a blog. Hell, it's not like I'm using it as credentials, it just seems like a natural thing to mention since I want to interview him.

The race is double elimination at first, then becomes a round-robin race for who can bag the most wins, the Dutchman says.

We make a loose agreement to meet up later. Right now though, it's time to fly.

A gaggle of high school girls in fuchsia and blue shirts is standing exactly where I need to put the drone down. The remote beeps at me again: low battery.

One especially cute girl with lovely colored lipstick on, gets the rest of them to smile and wave.

“Dance?” she asks me.

“Sure,” I say.

She does a little dance for the drone before her jig crumbles into laughter.

I nervously land the drone on the edge of one of the steps as the girls pile into their boat.

Kara shows up wearing small round-lensed sun glasses. Beads of sweat pop up on her face.

“It's the hottest it's been in two months,” she says. She's right, though it's still morning the sun is already sweltering.

With my drone battery drained, I tell her I'll just meet her at the cafe across the river that she and the rest of them are going to. However, the situation is more complicated. The cafe is closed, but owned by a friend and so on and so forth. Basically, it's not a great idea for me to rock up alone.

We agree to meet at Coffee Sound, which I've become a regular at; it's only a good seven to eight minute walk away. She says she'll catch me there. I'm halfway there when I get a message from her about possibly going to some other cafe that's closer – but according to Google Maps, it's not.

At this point, I can't really be bothered. I don't have any real attraction to anyone in the group of teachers, and, though they all seem fine with me joining them, they seems to have no particular desire to have me around – at least nothing they'd go out of their way to make happen.

Remembering the riverside Good View restaurant and cafe, which is even closer then Coffee Sound, I veer off in that direction.

I pull up short of Good View at a place, which has its name only written in Thai script on the signs and menu. The deck of the restaurant is nearly hanging directly over the river. I'm sure when the water is up, it's very low right now, it swirls around the support beams of the high deck.

At first, I'm the only customer at the scenic, open-air restaurant. The proprietor, a middle aged Thai woman dressed in a traditional long skirt, makes me a coffee. One of the servers is still straightening her hair by a small rolling tray that they use to keep the ice and drinks for a table.

Waiting for the drone to charge, I take more pictures, play Pokemon Go, compulsively check social media accounts and look up a little bit more on how drones are being used in the Plains of Jars in Laos.

I should have brought a book.

I order green bean salad with no tiny dried shrimps, nearly making sure they don't put any “poo” – crab – in their either. I don't say anything, and sure enough there are crushed bits of tiny crabs hidden in the salty salad. I'm allergic to shrimp, lobster and crabs. However, carefully picking through the dish, I'm able to eat it without my throat swelling and throwing up all over the place.

I feel like I'm covering the Mint 400 desert race for Sports Illustrated in 1971. It's more of an personal mood rather than the scenery or the race itself.

The type of boats and races can be found in Laos and Cambodia, as well as Northern Thailand. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A group of journos, all talking shit and slowly getting drunk together as the races go on would be perfect. However, it's just me.

I roll the die. I conquer – not that it matters – and buy a small bottle of whiskey for myself and some soda waters. If I'm going to spend all day watching the races, I'm not going to do it sober. Ideally, the teachers would come join me, but they've already run off to some other cafe or something. Like I said, I can't be bothered.

When I return from a drone run, a couple of the tables nearby have filled up. Two tables down from mine, an older man sits with what I presume to be his Thai family – wife and two kids. The New Yorker sits next to a younger woman with a shaved head who's wearing baseball cap, star tattoos run up the side of her neck, tucking behind her ear. On the other side of the table is an older woman, his wife, I think.

“Hi,” he says. “Yeah, I'm just here with my girlfriend, her grandma and her little brother.”

Well, I got that family dynamic completely wrong, I think, wondering how old the girl is and happy not to know. This is the sort of thing you get use to in Thailand. There's no judging or strange feeling about what the age difference between the American and his girlfriend might be. He's clearly doing it right, spending time with her grandma, taking care of the girl. What works for them, well works for them, so who am I to start weighing things up on scales I don't understand.

It turns out that Frank use to work for a couple newspaper in Colorado. I'm chatting away, probably talking too much about myself, when this beautiful steamed fish arrives at the table.

Warmly, Frank gives my knee a pat.

“We're going to go head and have lunch,” he says, kindly dismissing me.

“Of course, of course. Enjoy,” I say before scooting back to my table, feeling a bit guilty about talking so much about my project and my history with the Phuket Gazette.

I top up my whiskey and soda.

Woman are now starting to participate in the racing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

From this vantage point, it's possible to watch the rowers paddling up stream, gliding along the muddy shoreline up to where the tall weeds start to get thick as the boat becomes no bigger than a colorful pencil on the brown river, with blue mountains looming way off in the distance.

Sipping my whiskey, occasionally refilling it, as the waitresses aren't especially attentive, I allow myself to get drunk. It's been a few weeks since I've had a drink, so the small bottle is having a bigger impact than it would a couple years ago.

It takes some time for the drone to charge, but that's fine.

Twenty men in pink shirts glide to the starting line. The stern man, the one in the back of the boat, holds a start line to keep the bot from drifting down stream as he calls out orders for the men to straighten up the vessel.

A flag appears on each side of a platform floating in the middle of the river. Then, there is the blast of a bull horn and the flags drop. The racers dig deep into the Nan river. Their is a spray of water as the paddles are pulled from the water, sending the team flying down river, past the cheering crowds.

Suddenly there is shade. A young man from the crowd has come down a cement embankment and his holding his umbrella over my head, protecting me from the intensity of the sun as I fly the drone.

“Why don't you come out to our place tomorrow?” Frank asks. They'd been waiting for me to return from another drone mission before leaving. “The boy loves the drone, so maybe you could bring it along.”

“Ah, he should have come with me to fly it just now,” I say.

“I know. I told him so, but he's too shy.”

Tomorrow is Sunday. I was planning on watching more racing, but the idea of getting to kick back with someone and hangout seems much better than another day of getting drunk by myself.

“Sounds good.”

We exchange numbers, confirming that I'll meet them at about 9am – unless it's raining.

The rest of the day slides by, slowly, steadily. It's a lovely way to spend a day, the sun's fierceness begins to mild, throwing everything into a warmer, more polite light.

A bit drunk, I forget the lasts quarter of the bottle of whiskey as I pack up my things and head back to the motorcycle.

Parking on the bridge I watch as a few more boats come flying down the river below us. One looses control of its steering, veering toward it's opponent. It's a near collusion that leads to the disqualifcation of the offending team.

One of the judges sitting in the shade of tent setup on the bridge brings me a bottle of cold water. He's a handsome Thai man with parted black hair. We talk for a few minutes before I return to my camera.

On the way back to S.P. Guesthouse, I pull the bike over to pick up some more Poke Balls from the Pokestops that aren't even remotely “on the way” back to the hostel. Several dozen novices in bright orange robes are gathering on the green grass in front of the “Elephant Pagoda”, where one of the Pokestops is located.

A head monk spots me taking photos.

“Come, I'll introduce you so you can take pictures,” he says, after a little small talk. The man brings up alongside the novices.

“They come from poor families. Here they receive food and an education,” he explains.

In front of the young monks who are being assigned their evening chores before meditation, a pagoda pierces a blue sky. The settings sun limes an enormous fluffy cumulus cloud, though enough light manages to make it through the sky to leave the top of the pagoda, above the cement base, splotched with black mold, to shimmer in its golden glory.

The novices are mostly from poor families in the area. Photos: Isaac Stone SImonelli

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